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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A "World Class" Misread of "WOW"

Where should a company spend its money? Logically, you would answer that it should invest where it gains its greatest return. After all why would a for-profit enterprise make discretionary investments with little or no hope for incrimental return? If it were your business, if you were the CEO, would that make sense?

Let me suggest, gently, that this is exactly the same flawed logic behind misinterpretations of Wow and World Class Talent in our company. I'm grouping these two different leadership initiatives into the same category, even though they are different initiatives, because they generated the same unintended reaction from the same areas of our company. If it happens here, I'll bet it happens in other companies as well.

The theory goes that to get great people or great products you must by definition spend a lot of extra dollars. That theory is just plain wrong.

A few years ago the Executive Leadership Team, even before we started calling ourselves by that name, set out to define a set of core values and operating principles. It was a necessary step in updating our company culture; articulate what we stood for and then let that inform all manner of decisions from what we publish (or won't publish) to our goals and policies. One of those values was "World Class Talent".

Almost immediately my phone began to ring and my email lit up. I can sum those communications up something like, "Well now that we want world class talent we're going to need to pay more. We need world class wages to get world class talent." Mind you, nobody was ready to step aside for a better qualified person. Rather, some just wanted more pay for their current job. In other words, an additional investment with no potential incremental return.

Were these people, who wrongly felt that they were getting paid only 60 or 70% of market value, putting forth only 60 or 70% effort? That's not what they said at review time when they wanted a raise, but that was the insinuation around World Class Talent.

The truth about talent is that the right person for the job is such a combination of elements that its a subject all its own. For now lets just say that it is a combination of intellect, a skill set that is in line with the needs of the organization (not necessarily the best in the market), work ethic, and dedication to the profession or mission.

Anything less is a typical employee. Mind you, companies need typical employees to get the work done and should value them and the dignity of their work. The typical worker, however, is not the same as world class talent.

For further debunking of the "world class wages" fallacy, you have to go no further than Stephen Collins "Good to Great". Read the section on Level 5 Leaders and see what a small role that compensation plays in the motivation of the best people. Spending incremental dollars almost never results in incrementally improved performance.

Lately I see this same logic applied to Wow products. The idea that our products should stand out in the market and be excellent experiences that create enthusiastic customers is dead-on. But like World Class Talent, the definition of what is Wow and what it takes to create it is subject to misinterpretation.

Unfortunately the thinking sometimes goes that the greater the expense, the greater the Wow. I have specific examples but I'll keep them to myself since whether you work at Thomas Nelson or somewhere else you probably have your own examples.

Besides, even ill-thought spending is done with the best of intentions; nobody comes to work saying, "I think I'll waste money today." The point here is not to call out any individual or bad decision, but to call out the bad thinking. Expense equals Wow like sizzle equals steak.

Wow is the content of a book, like "The Shack", that makes people pass it from person to person after reading it in Sunday school. Wow is content that sustains; it not only sells in to the marketplace, but sells through and gains momentum like "Total Money Makeover" or "Same Kind of Different as Me". Wow is coordinating the sales, marketing, and distribution of a product (any product, not just a book) to the point that customer interest and inventory meet at the point of sale.

I'm looking at my own bookshelf at home tonight and for the first time am taking notice of the covers of those books I've elected to keep over the years. I see the various volumes of H.G. Wells "The Outline of History" in their solid burgundy covers with simple black spine designs and lettering. I see my collectors' edition copy of Moby Dick in its off-white fabric cover, burgundy spine, and simple whaling ship picture with the name of the book above and author's name below.

From "The End of the Affair" to "On the Road" to "Tropic of Cancer", the better the book, the simpler the cover. The simplest covers on my book shelf belong to my various bibles, which have the greatest content of all.

Just like World Class Talent, investments in creating Wow that don't make the content better or drive customers to great content are incremental dollars lost. Its like paying more to the same people and thinking their work will improve.

You can decide if I'm overstepping my area of expertise, or if this concept is so simple even the HR guy gets it. The main thing that Wow has in common with World Class Talent is that the quality is on the inside.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Slow Poke

I'm going to rant here just for a few words. Its been coming for a long time and I'm overdue so forgive me just this once.

I am fed up with unresponsive people.

I bet you know what I'm talking about. Those people who are supposed to return your calls but don't. Those people who receive your emails and may send you a reply a week from next Tuesday. Now, if they want something from you its urgent, maybe even a matter upon which rests the fate of the free world. Its a culture issue in some places; nobody gets back to anybody else. In other places, its an individual attitude: their time is more valuable than yours. They are more important than you.

If you call out this behavior you'll hear some interesting excuses: too overworked, don't have a laptop, don't have a blackberry, wasn't properly trained, technical problems so they didn't get your call (or email, or the post-it note you left on their desk, or the pink message slip from their colleague who took your call). I'm just waiting to hear, "My dog ate your Twitter."

Here's a reality check; slow response time has two root causes and only two. They are the result of poor work habits and/or poor leadership.



Work Habits
Most people who know me and have worked with me for very long know that I don't carry a blackberry, nor do I own a laptop. I use a Nokia flip phone similar to the one pictured to the right, except that mine is much older and Nokia doesn't carry a picture of it on their web site any longer. I use web mail from home and stay in hotels with business centers where I can use web access.

People also know that my "brand" is that, for all my many faults, I respond quickly. If you work in HR you know that part of your performance expectations are that you return calls and emails and give great customer service. And Gentle Reader, if you ever find that not to be the case you can contact me at ext. 1400 or jthomason@thomasnelson.com and tell me all about it.

So if I can return all phone calls in the same day and zero-out my inbox each night, why can't staff members with laptops and blackberrys not get back to you sometime before the spring rains? It comes down to how bad they want to get back to you, how much of a priority that they place on communication, and how hard they want to work. Responsiveness is a choice and a work ethic and a measure of how much a person respects their colleagues. It has nothing to do with technology and everything to do character.

Leadership
Poor responsiveness flourishes where its allowed to, and that's a leadership issue. A business unit leader who values collaboration and mutual respect will insist on responsiveness. If they don't, their boss needs to hear about it. If their boss doesn't get it or the situation doesn't improve, their boss needs to hear about it and on up the chain until you reach Mike Hyatt. Our CEO models responsiveness as well as anyone in the workforce.

Remember, when someone contacts you they are probably waiting on an answer. When you don't answer, you cause them to make repeated contacts, or go around you to get what they need. This is inefficient and just plain unnecessary when you could just as easily have answered the phone or returned an email. And remember that whenever a phone rings its usually a customer on the other end; either an internal customer who needs you as a colleague or a paying customer who needs assistance. As such, nobody is too important to answer the phone.

Ahhh....I feel better now.